Friday, July 8, 2011

Fourth of July Meditation

A sermon delivered at the Kenwood Community Church, Sonoma Valley, California.
By Richard Allen Hyde

Tomorrow, of course, is Pancake Day here in Kenwood. In the rest of the United States it is Independence Day, but here it is Pancake Breakfast Day. If you are here today and somehow do not know about the Pancake Breakfast tomorrow starting early in the morning, or 5k run, or the parade, well you should.

Today I will talk about great events that have taken place around this time of year. I will tell you the story of a remarkable encounter that took place about 75 years ago and use that incident to bring our attention to Abraham Lincoln’s use of scripture in his Second Inaugural Address.

On July 4, 1776, 235 years ago tomorrow, and in the days thereafter a number of distinguished gentlemen signed a document that would have been their death warrant had events turned out differently. Our War of Independence was an extraordinary stroke of luck. General Washington almost captured several times. He came through several battles unharmed after bullets flew all around him. The Continental Army was almost destroyed in Brooklyn. If the wind had shifted and the British fleet been able to move into position, it would have been. The conclusive surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown was the result of extraordinarily fortunate coincidences. A British fleet did not arrive. A French fleet did and army did, and the rest is history.

As Bismarck said, “God has a special place in his heart for fools, drunks and the US of A.” The Iron Chancellor envied the United States and hoped for the South to win the Civil War so that we would not become so powerful.

55 years ago this week, June 29, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act. It was the largest public works project in American history up to that time. Perhaps no other act of Congress within our lifetimes has had such a deep and long-lasting impact on the country, changing where we live and work, transforming, for better or worse, our cities, creating the suburbs, and, undeniably, knitting the nation together.

Eisenhower's support of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 can be directly attributed to his experiences in 1919 as a participant in the U.S. Army's first Transcontinental Motor Convoy across the United States on the historic Lincoln Highway, which was the first road across America. The convoy left the Ellipse south of the White House in Washington D.C. on July 7, 1919, and headed for Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. From there, it followed the Lincoln Highway to San Francisco. Bridges cracked and were rebuilt, vehicles became stuck in mud, and equipment broke. The journey took two months. The fact that it took so long and the fact that from Illinois west through Nevada the roads were still unpaved, made quite an impact on the young Ike. When he encountered the autobahn in Germany in 1945 he made a vow to himself to improve America’s roads if he could, and he did.

On this date in 1863, July 3, 1863 the Battle of Gettysburg ended. The three-day battle, involved some 160,000 Americans and led to some 50,000 casualties. It was union victory and the final major Confederate offensive operation. It was as important and dramatic a battle as has ever been fought, with the fate of the nation hanging in the balance.

Just as importantly for the course of the Civil War, the very next day, Independence Day 1864, General Pemberton surrendered the city of Vicksburg and his entire garrison of 20,000 men to General Grant, thus leaving the Mississippi River open to navigation. When he received the news by telegram, President Lincoln remarked

"The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea."

These events together marked the unmistakable turning point of the Civil War.

I promise to lead you into a study of today’s scriptures and how Lincoln used them and two others in his Second Inaugural Address. I will lead you into these scriptures and that address by way of telling you about an unusual encounter in eastern Europe in the summer of 1934, a story told by one of my literary heroes, who just died a few weeks ago at the age of 96.

Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor was born in 1915, making him a member of my parents’ generation. He was acclaimed during his lifetime as one of the finest travel writers ever. More importantly, he became a British undercover agent during World War II on the German-occupied island of Crete. There he teamed up with Cretan partisans to kidnap the German commandant and take him off the island to Cairo. It was a great adventure, which was turned into a book by one of his comrades-in-arms and eventually a movie. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, Order of the British Empire and knighted. Always Paddy to his friends, he lived large, made friends easily and knew at least something about everything.

He began his career after being thrown out of school in Canterbury, where I also studied for a year at the local university. He then set out at age 19, in December of 1933 to walk across Europe from Holland to Constantinople, which took almost two years. Taking only a sleeping bag, the Oxford Book of English Verse and a volume of Horace, he walked up the Rhine and down the Danube, sleeping in barns and shepherd huts along the way, finally arriving at Constantinople in 1935.

The two books he wrote - there is a third, unfinished - about this experience, in prose of which John Keats would have been proud, included the meeting up with some Jewish woodcutters in the mountainous forests of Transylvania. They communicated in German. One of the woodcutters was a rabbi – I’m not making this up; this is not a rabbi joke. Together with the rabbi’s sons and assistants they stopped for the evening to study Torah. Patrick Fermor was interested in languages, had a wonderful ability to make contact with people, and recited a few lines of some familiar psalms, translating in his head from English into German as he went. The rabbi and sons then would recite the Hebrew.

It must have been quite a session there in the lamplight of a summer evening in the forests of Rumania. Here is how he describes it:

“Everything took a different turn when scripture cropped up. The book in front of the Rabbi was the Torah, or part of it, printed in dense Hebrew black-letter that was irresistible to someone with a passion for alphabets; especially these particular letters, with their aura of magic. Laboriously I could phonetically decipher the sounds of some of the simpler words, without a glimmer of their meanings, of course, and this sign of interest gave pleasure. I showed them some of the words I had copied down in Bratislava from shops and Jewish newspapers in cafés, and the meanings, which I had forgotten, made them laugh; those biblical symbols recommended a stall for repairing umbrellas, or ‘Daniel Kirsch, Koscher Würst und Salami.’ How did the Song of Miriam sound in the original, and the Song of Deborah; David’s lament for Absalom; and the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valley? The moment it became clear, through my clumsy translations into German, which passage I was trying to convey, the Rabbi at once began to recite, often accompanied by his sons. Our eyes were alight; it was a marvelous game. Next came the rivers of Babylon, and the harps hanging on the willows: this they uttered in unfaltering unison, and when they came to ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,’ the moment was extremely solemn . . . After a few more moments like this, the other-worldly Rabbi and his sons and I were excited. Enthusiasm ran high. These passages, so famous in England, were double charged with meaning for them, and their enthusiasm was infectious. They seemed astonished – touched, too – that their tribal poetry enjoyed such glory and affection in the outside world . . .”

This ancient poetry truly does enjoy glory and affection in the outside world, even in these United States, and has throughout our history.

We read the Bible because it is paradigmatic. The Bible contains stories of promise and fulfillment and loss and disappointment; followed by a new promise, a new and unexpected fulfillment. This is the substance of life, as individuals, as a congregation, as a nation: promise, dreams, fulfillment, loss, disappointment, renewal of promise, another fulfillment, hope springs eternal; and so on.

So here we are July 3, 2011, Independence Day Weekend, 148 years after the battle of Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg, 146 years approximately after the Civil War ended, 235 years since the signing of the declaration.

The greatness of Abraham Lincoln consisted of many abilities and accomplishments, but none more important than his use of Biblical imagery, quotations, and thinking to enunciate the meaning and purpose of the Civil War and the meaning and purpose of this nation and our form of government. He did this in all of his speeches, which actually were rather few – a dozen major speeches and a few minor ones - but the two most important are the ones inscribed in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address.

It is to the latter speech and the Biblical quotations that we turn. Many have called his Second Inaugural Address the greatest sermon ever delivered in America. And it was only 700 words. I’ve already spoken more than that.

He made four specific references in this speech to scripture. In two places he quoted scripture word for word and in one other, two scriptures are clearly put together and quoted in part.

We’ll begin in the middle, after he has explained the cause of the war and stated
“Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.”

Thus he described war as something alien that comes upon; and that is how we usually experience major conflict. We do not expect it; we do not plan for it; and then, suddenly we’re in a raging argument. People’s voices are rising and feelings are getting hurt.

“Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.” Afterward, we say “I got into an argument.”

And the war came

By March of 1865 the results were indeed fundamental and astounding. Slavery was over. The 13th Amendment outlawing slavery had passed. There were 180,000 African Americans in the Union Army. There were even a few hundred or maybe a thousand in the Confederate Army.

“Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged.” (Gen 3:19; Matt 7:1)

This irenic address does include a smackdown of slavery and for this condemnation he goes to Genesis 3:19 where the fact that we have to work is a direct result of the Fall. Work and toil are the wages of sin. Forcing others to work for us compounds the sin. Then he returns to prayer, the main subject of this paragraph, and concludes:

“The prayers of both could not be answered—that of neither has been answered fully.”

We certainly all know this by now. We do get answers to prayers, but almost never exactly what we ask for.

“The Almighty has his own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ (Matt18:7 This passage in the Bible foreshadows the betrayal of Jesus by Judas.) If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him? Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’" (Ps 19:9)

God is still in charge. Offenses come. It’s a fallen world. Stuff happens. Bad stuff happens. When bad stuff happens, there is someone responsible, but more importantly, usually, a lot of people are responsible. As we sow, we reap. We created slavery and reaped the benefits. Now we pay the price. Lincoln addressed himself to all Americans, north and south. He made no mention of war reparations or anything of the sort. The war itself was the payment and everyone had to pay up. At the end of this long and terrible war, he concluded simply that somehow it had to happen. No one was to blame and everyone was to blame. There was plenty of blame to go around.

Therefore

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Every single day in Washington, thousands of people, people from all over America and the world, visit the Lincoln Memorial, have their photographs taken in front of the great statue, and read the two addresses on the north and south interior walls. They read these two great American speeches based so much upon the Bible, and draw their own conclusions about their own lives and countries. Lincoln’s words are an echo in still contemporary language of that call from God to Abraham, to Moses, to Deborah, to Miriam, to Jesus, to all the saints, even to the saints here today in Kenwood; a call to live by God’s laws, to love God, to love your neighbor, to forgive, to be forgiven; and thereby fulfill God’s promise and experience the fullness of life

Scriptures:

Genesis 3:19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

Psalm 19:9 The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.

Matt 7:1-5
[1] Judge not, that ye be not judged.
[2] For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
[3] And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
[4] Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
[5] Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.

Matt.18:1-7
[1] At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
[2] And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them,
[3] And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
[4] Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
[5] And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.
[6] But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
[7] Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!